April 13, 2003 - Personal Web Site: At the southern tip of Chile, were sharing our campsite with a lively group of Peace Corps volunteers from Bolivia

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Chile: Peace Corps Chile : The Peace Corps In Chile: April 13, 2003 - Personal Web Site: At the southern tip of Chile, were sharing our campsite with a lively group of Peace Corps volunteers from Bolivia

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At the southern tip of Chile, were sharing our campsite with a lively group of Peace Corps volunteers from Bolivia

At the southern tip of Chile, were sharing our campsite with a lively group of Peace Corps volunteers from Bolivia

Rain, Snow, and a Group of Chilean High School Girls

At the southern tip of Chile, Martin sets out to trek the Torres del Paine Circuit and learns, the hard way, why Patagonia is notorious for some of the worst weather in the world.

by Martin Wierzbicki

"The pass is closed." We stare in disbelief at the park ranger. "Too many snows this year," he explains in broken English as we exchange nervous glances, "it is not possible to make the Paine Circuit."

Rahul and I are devastated. For the last four days, wed been on a ferryboat crowded with cattle, freight containers and a few adventurous backpackers, traveling 1500km down the desolate coast of southern Chile to trek the Paine Circuit. In the dimly lit interior of the ferry, wed huddled over contour maps of the park and planned every minute detail of the trek. Wed read the guidebook cover-to-cover, researched each campsite, discussed our food supplies, and reviewed our equipment. Everything was perfect. We were ready.

And now this. Its impossible to complete the 100km Paine Circuit without crossing the John Gardner pass and the pass is snowbound. Defeated and deflated, we roam the streets of Puerto Natales, looking for a place to share our misery with other trekkers.

The contradictory reports slowly begin to filter in. A Canadian couple has heard from an Australian trekker that two Germans made it across the pass a few days ago. "No, no, no. It is definitely closed," warns a dour French hiker. But a Norwegian climber just met a Dutch guy who had crossed the pass. Someone else mentions the two Germans. A mountain guide, who has just returned from the park, encourages us to go for it. "You can always turn back," he adds with a taunting smile.

"Well, why not?" we agree, against our better judgment.

Preparing for the trek


The snow-capped granite spires of the Torres del Paine reach into the sky, forming a mountainous cathedral on the distant horizon that rises to dizzying proportions as we approach the park. Our bus follows a dusty, winding track through the windswept steppes of southern Patagonia. Its a three-hour trip from Puerto Natales into the park. We arrive in the early evening as a light drizzle begins to fall.

By the time we set up our camp at the foot of the Torres, the sky fades into night and stars begin to appear through windows in the clouds. The Patagonian sky is vast, forbidding, wild, and grows more intriguing with the harsh, gray light of the rising moon. A rain cloud passes overhead. As the raindrops catch the light of the moon, a faint lunar rainbow appears across the night sky.

Tonight, were sharing our campsite with a lively group of Peace Corps volunteers from Bolivia. To celebrate our first night in the park, we mix a bottle of pisco and cola, a popular local drink. The bottle circulates around the campfire as we share stories, travel tales, and reminisce about the simple comforts of home. "Hay fiesta?" A group of drunken Chilean high school girls stumbles over from the next campsite. They join us to toast marshmallows and sing campfire songs. We drink and sing and talk late into the night.


The rain begins the moment we step out of our tent, at first a light drizzle, intensifying to a downpour as we race to finish a bowl of oatmeal. At least its not snowing. Or, rather, it probably is snowing at higher elevations, on the pass. I lift my pack on put it on. "It wasnt this heavy yesterday," I grumble clipping together the waist belt.

Bridge crossing

We hike for four hours to Puesto Seron, following the wide valley of the Rio Paine, stopping frequently to catch our breath, adjust our backpacks and re-lace our hiking boots. Looking up, my eyes trace the precipitous face of a nearby mountain, from the verdant foothills to the sheer granite cliffs and first snowfields, where it disappears into the clouds.The trail follows a cattle fence through fields and forests, occasionally crossing an icy stream on a makeshift bridge of fallen logs or conveniently arranged stones. A lonely gaucho passes us, riding his horse in the opposite direction behind a small herd of cattle.

We stop for lunch at Puesto Seron. Im relieved to finally put down my pack, which has gradually become an impossibly heavy burden. Even now, my feet are showing the first signs of blisters. Wed be camping here tonight if wed followed the guidebooks advice. Instead, we have to trek another four hours to Camparmento Coiron-in the rain. "Dont worry," Rahul reassures me, trying the make the best of an increasingly difficult situation, "the first day is always the hardest."

Climbing out of a ravine

In the afternoon, fatigued and breathing heavily, we climb a low pass to catch our first view of Lago Paine in the valley below. Above the pass, a condor effortlessly sails the thermals, silently mocking our effort and exertion. The trail traces the left bank of the lake for several hours, rising and dropping frequently with the contours of the terrain. By the time we reach our campsite in the early evening, Im completely drained of strength, struggling to lift each foot. Im beginning to understand why they call this the "pain" circuit.

We pitch our tent in a steady rain and quietly eat our dinner around the remaining ambers of the campfire as sudden, furious gusts of frozen wind rage down from the mountains and glaciers of the Torres. A few minutes later, I collapse in the tent, exhausted. Rapidly drifting into unconsciousness, my mind becomes crowded with questions and anxieties. How long will this rain continue? Will the pass be snowbound when we arrive? Why am I even here?

"Why am I here?" I ask myself, yet again, wading through a swamp of ankle-deep mud. Its cold and raining. Its been raining for the last two days-nonstop. My clothes are soaked through; my boots are soaked through, my feet blistered.

The trail continues to follow the wide valley of the Rio Paine for several hours. We reach Refugio Dickson in the early afternoon to find a small wooden hut with an old stove and a handful of wet, weary hikers taking shelter from the rain. Some are determined to continue the circuit, while others are already turning back.

But we cant turn back. We force our way up a steep, slippery path, through dense foliage and wet branches that snap and scatter puddles of water as we pass. When the trail levels out, we enter a dark forest of tall, ancient trees and become enveloped in a green canopy of leaves, moss and grass. The trail leads to a lookout over a small waterfall, then continues up the valley, weaving around massive tree trunks that seem to have intentionally fallen to block our path. The steady rain is our faithful companion. As we gain altitude, it turns to sleet, then snow. We arrive at Camparmento Perros in a blizzard.

The camp is located on small lake at the foot of a gray glacier that snakes up into the fog. Blocks of ice break off from the glacier to form icebergs that drift across the lake. Some of the trekkers we meet have been camping here for days or even a week, waiting for the weather to improve. But we dont have enough food to wait. We must cross the pass tomorrow or turn back and retrace our steps down the valley.

The pass is snowbound and its still snowing as I drift into an uneasy sleep.


Its still snowing when we wake the next morning. A foot of fresh snow has fallen overnight and a thick fog hangs in the air. I light our stove to boil some water for breakfast. At the next campsite, a group of trekkers is waking to another disappointing morning. Theyre staying put for one more day, but weve decided to press on.

With limited visibility, we rely on vague footprints in the snow to find the trail, but these become increasingly difficult to follow as they fill with falling snow. When the footprints disappear, we follow a loose trail of orange ribbons, wrapped around distorted tree trunks and tied to twisted branches. As we climb higher through the sparse forest, these markers become more sporadic.

Within an hour were standing in a labyrinth of stunted trees, lost, looking for clues. I circle around to scan the area. The ribbons have vanished. The footprints are gone. Even our own footprints, behind us, are rapidly fading with the falling snow. "Weve lost the trail," I remark casually, as my eyes meet Rahuls to silently acknowledge the gravity of the situation. I nervously pull a map from my pack, but there are no landmarks to find our position, just snow and trees and fog. My finger traces the broken red line of the trail on the contour map as it traverses the side of a narrow valley from Camparmento Perros to the John Gardner pass. Slowly, it dawns on us. Were on the wrong side of the valley.

The distant muted roar of the Rio de los Perros guides us back down into the valley. On the other side, a half hour later, we finally rejoin a vague trail of footprints. We continue to climb higher into a white nebula of snow and fog. Soon, were above the tree line and catching up with a pair of hikers in the distance. As we get closer, we suddenly realize that theyre coming toward us.

"Were turning around," explains one of the men, worn-out and obviously disappointed, "the snow is knee-deep up there and you cant see a thing. Maybe well try again tomorrow if the weather improves. Good luck."

Crossing the John Gardner Pass

Their tracks continue for another twenty or thirty minutes, and then end abruptly. "This must be where they turned around," I observe, taking off my pack and dropping it in the snow. We take a break for a few minutes to consider our options. Where do we go from here? Its only another hour or two to the pass, but it wont be easy to find the trail. Weve already lost our way once. At least the snow is starting to subside and some the clouds are lifting. Could the weather be improving? As I scan the horizon, I spot an enormous orange-painted boulder in a distant snowfield high above us. Its the trail.

With renewed enthusiasm, we alternate breaking trail through the fresh snow that reaches ankle-deep in some places, waist-deep in others. I kick a step in the snow, rest, and kick another step. A numbing wind whips my face. "Kick, step, rest. Kick, step, rest." I repeat to myself to keep the rhythm, to keep moving, to keep my mind off the cold and the fatigue. By the time we reach the orange boulder, we can finally make out the pass in the distance. We continue to climb, making slow but measured progress.

The snow slope gradually levels out as we approach the pass and were greeted by a howling gale that threatens to knock us over. I brace myself against the wind and impulsively scramble up the last few steps. And then, Im standing on the John Gardner pass, encircled by a ring of jagged, icy peaks. Far below, on the other side of the pass, the Grey glacier is an infinite sea of ice stretching toward the Patagonian icecap. Weve made it.

"Remember, were only halfway," cautions Rahul. But we begin our descent knowing that worst is behind us, and I'm already dreaming about a hot shower and a comfortable bed when I return to Puerto Natales.

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Chile; COS - Bolivia; Trekking



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